DRAKE, Colo. — Blowtorch winds gusting to 60 mph whipped up two wildfires and sent flames racing Thursday, forcing firefighters to retreat and driving hundreds more people from their homes in the foothills outside Denver.
More than 200 National Guardsmen were called in to join the 1,500 firefighters already battling the two blazes.
The fires have burned nearly 15,000 acres and destroyed about 50 structures, mostly homes, since Monday. Before the flare-up on Thursday, about 800 people had been evacuated.
One blaze was burning just east of Rocky Mountain National Park, about 50 miles northwest of Denver. The other was 35 miles southwest of Denver, near the Pike National Forest.
As flames raced up tree trunks and through tinder-dry ground cover, enormous plumes of gray and white smoke billowed over mountain ridges. Haze blanketed the communities, where residents waited anxiously for news.
Wind gusts swelled the northern blaze to 7,750 acres from 6,700 acres the night before, forcing hundreds of people to flee. People who had been allowed back into their homes earlier in the week were ordered to get out again.
JoAnne Grace said she and her husband watered down the grass around their house and stuffed two cars full of their belongings, preparing to flee at midday. She said the fire was about a mile from their home.
"It's peeking over the crest of the hill. It's very smoky with black bellows," Grace said in a telephone interview. "It's directly across the ridge from us. There are quite a few bulldozers."
Southwest of Denver, weary firefighters struggled to maintain the lines they had built around the 6,600-acre blaze there and to keep flames away from homes scattered through a dozen small subdivisions.
Firefighters retreated to open meadows for safety at one point when roaring wind-driven flames drew close to a sawmill built in 1930.
"Both for personal safety and progress of the fire, the winds are probably our most serious issue," said Jim Krugman, deputy incident commander.
Firefighters were optimistic the situation would improve today, when lower temperatures and higher humidity were forecast.
The northern fire affected primarily ranching and farming communities dotted with mostly small homes.
The southwestern fire was burning near the subdivisions in an area that has attracted retirees and persons seeking weekend getaways. Some homes are large and graceful; others are more moderate.
In Conifer, at a meeting with authorities, residents forced from their homes by the southwestern fire sought answers about their houses, when they can go home and whether their belongings are being looted.
"I want specifics. The fire is right near my house. I want to know that," said Tammy Sandaker, 40, who learned about the evacuation while driving home Monday.
Many people were clutching green topographical maps of the area in hopes of finding out what has happened to their homes. The officials took questions, some polite, others angry, from residents about information they have heard on TV, police scanners or by word of mouth.
"I've been frustrated because the people you do call don't have any information," said Barbara Dokter.
Sandaker said she worried about looters rifling through the houses.